Free dinner brings together 150 neighbours at Milton Community Hall

The volunteers at the hall, including Shari MacDonald, spent two full days getting food ready. (Shane Hennessey/CBC - image credit)
The volunteers at the hall, including Shari MacDonald, spent two full days getting food ready. (Shane Hennessey/CBC - image credit)

The Milton Community Hall, on the outskirts of Charlottetown, is usually home to exercise classes and 4H meetings, but on Thursday night, it was full of volunteers in hair nets and community members who were there to pick up their baked beans.

The beans were served alongside ham, with cheese rolls and mustard pickles on the side, and caramel apple cake for dessert—all funded by the Island Community Food Security Initiative.

Most community groups that applied for the funding used it toward a community fridge, but Miltonvale Park had another idea.

"We thought that if we made meals for people it might reach a wider audience and help people in some different ways," said Shari MacDonald, the secretary of the Milton Community Hall and CAO of the rural municipality of Miltonvale Park.

Shane Hennessey/CBC
Shane Hennessey/CBC

The event was the fifth in a series of six meals, and around 150 people either attended, picked up food, or got the meal delivered. For those in the community who don't get out much, it's a welcome treat, MacDonald said.

"We're just providing meals for people that could use a nice meal, whether it's a help financially, whether it's the help because they're a single person who may not cook a big pot of homemade beans," she says.

"Whoever's in the local areas and wants to come down for supper."

A community meeting place

Folks register for the dinner in advance so the volunteers know how much to prepare. MacDonald and a handful of other women spent two full days in the kitchen at the community hall, soaking beans, cooking ham and planning everything out.

The biggest "kerfuffle," said MacDonald, was finding a way to get all the beans to cook in the hall's three ovens. In the end, the solution was a half dozen crock pots.

The first guests began to arrive before 5 p.m. even though takeout didn't begin until 5:15. But it was no problem for residents like Marlene Andrews, who spent time chatting with neighbours while they waited.

Shane Hennessey/CBC
Shane Hennessey/CBC

"I've been here every time they had one," Andrews said. Since her husband died seven years ago, she often finds herself eating the same meal over and over because she cooks too much.

"It's lovely, saves me cooking," she added.

John Whitty was in line to pick up dinner for himself and his wife. The Brackley Beach couple first came to the hall in September.

"We actually came here quite a bit when we had Fiona. We had a lot of damage in our house, so they had meals here and they were actually excellent," he said.

Shane Hennessey/CBC
Shane Hennessey/CBC

Even though the meal is free, Whitty often donates some money because he sees the event bringing the community together.

"Not only this community, but bedroom communities around this community, they come as well because they enjoy the atmosphere and the people," he said.

A family affair

Others bring their entire family—and more—to the dinner. Jolene Richardson came to the sit-down portion of the meal with her husband, three daughters, and their elderly neighbour.

"It's nice to have a meal where we're able to sit and eat together and enjoy something really nice," she said. "But also I didn't have to do any dishes."

Shane Hennessey/CBC
Shane Hennessey/CBC

Her children are always excited to come, Richardson said, and it shows how important community is in a small town like Miltonvale Park.

"My husband grew up going to the Lot 16 hall, and he talks fondly about the times that his family went to things like this," she said.

"I hope [my children] remember that there are cool things out there—that you have to remember to get out of your house and see people and try new things."

The hall's other meals have included turkey dinner and ham with scalloped potatoes. The final dinner, Irish stew is scheduled for March 14.

Shane Hennessey/CBC
Shane Hennessey/CBC

"Everybody needs to eat, so we are definitely helping some people who really, really need the help," she said.

"But we're also helping people in other ways. Maybe you're having a tough day at work, don't have food skills, or just need company."

While the funding has run out for more at the current time, MacDonald said the dinners are definitely something she'd like to continue in the future.